Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Jan 01, 2023 7:43 pm 
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(Memento to myself not to approach Hou slavishly. Remember: Didn't like his 2015 ASSASSIN, which was received slavishly (it seemed to me). I see that Paul Schrader published a dissent. Also Mike D'Angelo in his 2015 Cannes Tweet reviews said:
"The Assassin [Hou Hsiao-hsien] : 54. As usual w/Hou, I'd rather have spent 15 mins leafing thru a picture book of stills from this (stunningly gorgeous) film." In my NYFF 2015 review I called THE ASSASSIN "Hou Hsio-hsien's exquisite but leaden version of a wu xia movie.")

Kevin Lee: "The idea of history as a fluid relationship between past and present has been a constant throughout Hou’s films. Certainly this is the case with his period films: the ‘Taiwan trilogy’ of A City Of Sadness (1989), The Puppetmaster (1993) and Good Men, Good Women (1995); or Flowers of Shanghai (1998."



(Wikipedia:) "Tells the story of a family embroiled in the "White Terror" that was wrought on the Taiwanese people by the Kuomintang government (KMT) after their arrival from mainland China in the late 1940s, during which thousands of Taiwanese and recent emigres from the Mainland were rounded up, shot, and/or sent to prison. The film was the first to deal openly with the KMT's authoritarian misdeeds after its 1945 takeover of Taiwan, which had been restored to China following Japan's defeat in World War II, and the first to depict the February 28 Incident of 1947, in which thousands of people were massacred by the KMT." It tells the story through (Richard Brody:) "Wen-ching (Tony Leung), a deaf-mute portrait photographer, whose silent lucidity is an ironic critique of the post-liberation linguistic wars, which mirror Taiwan’s civil conflict. (The movie pointedly features dialogue in Japanese as well as in a plethora of Chinese dialects [well, Taiwanese, Mandarin, and Cantonese anyway].) Meanwhile, Wen-ching’s two brothers fall afoul of gangsters, newly arrived from the mainland, who unduly influence the government. Hou’s extraordinarily controlled and well-constructed long takes blend revelation and opacity; his favorite trope is to shoot through doorways, as if straining to capture the action over impassable spans of time. The movie conveys the director’s intensely personal struggle at the crossroads of large-scale history and private memory; with understatedly bitter irony, he depicts the birth of a nation at the price of a family’s dissolution."

Jonathan Rosenbaum echoes that Hou "proves himself a master of long takes and complex framing, with a great talent for passionate (though elliptical and distanced) storytelling," and thinks this is "a meditation on communication itself" and notes this "appropriately enough it was the first Taiwanese film to use direct sound." Obviously the deaf mute, and his being played by Tony Leung, adds an ambiguous, haunting particularity, hogging the screen when he's there. Note that there are two other brothers, Wen-heung and Wen-leung, played by Chen Sung Young and Jack Kau, and it was the loud, pot-bellied Chen Sung Young who got the acting prize and Wen-heung is the dominant member of the family.

This is an absorbing kind of epic, distinctive and original in its way. But I partially agree with David Walsh of World Socialist Web Site that this film, however ambitious and impressive, sometimes inevitably feels a bit dutiful and stiff. It doesn't, it can't, come to life like his more personal films - Walsh lists Boys from Fengkuei, A Time to Live and a Time to Die and Dust in the Wind . Walsh, whose summary of Boys from Fengkuei is better than mine, also feels Hou's more recent films, both Flowers of Shanghai and Millennium Mambo, are also less successful and show he's gotten out of touch. That certainly can be said about Millennium Mambo. It's about people whose lives are out of joint, and (exquisitely) aestheticizes their dysfunctionality. And Flowers of Shanghai is very detached, almost clinical (though beautiful) in its depictions of routines and rituals.

Both THE BOYS OF FENGKUEI and A CITY OF SADNESS can be streamed free on Internet Archive ( They may be coming to Criterion.

Can't find THE PUPPETMASTER and GOOD MEN, GOOD WOMEN on streaming, so have ordered inexpensive DVDs of both on eBay. (They will take a while to come.)


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